A proposal to put up a housing development on a piece of property bordering Amity Creek, a designated trout stream, has caused a stir in Duluth’s Woodland neighborhood.
The project would require the extension of Vassar Street, currently a sleepy dead-end road lined with 20 homes.
Patrick Ferguson lives at the end of the current street with his wife, Katey, and two children, ages 7 and 9.
Katey said they looked at upward of 80 houses before settling into their current home five years ago.
“It was just everything we wanted,” said Patrick, noting the quiet neighborhood setting and the direct access to the neighboring woods laced with paths, including the Superior Hiking Trail.
The Fergusons knew they had something special, and purchased an additional 4.5 acres of land on the eastern side of their home to preserve the woodsy setting.
But they didn’t anticipate an additional 16 acres of land to the north might one day be rezoned to allow for much denser housing. That property is currently zoned for rural residential development — allowing for no more than 1 home every 5 acres.
Nevertheless, Kevin Christiansen proposes a zoning change that would enable him to add another 25-30 residential lots to the mix off an extended Vassar Street. He has dubbed the prospective future development "Amity Bluffs" and referred to it as “one of the last development opportunities in the highly sought-after Woodland neighborhood.”
The project would require a zoning change from RR-1, rural residential, to R-1, traditional neighborhood housing.
In a letter to the Duluth Planning Commission requesting the change, Christiansen wrote: “The current demand for housing in Duluth is substantial. Expanding residential building sites to this desirable location will not only attract new residents but will increase the demand for services in the Woodland Core Investment Area, as well as the positive economic benefits.”
The idea of putting a road into the area and clearing trees for residential development strikes Julie O’Leary, a member of the local McCabe Chapter of the Izaak Walton League, as a poor decision, however.
She voiced “major environmental concerns."
“This is an area of mature hardwoods. It’s on a trout stream. … It’s an area with minimal invasive species. That’s a high-value woods in Duluth these days," she said.
O’Leary also noted the presence of wetlands in the area that help slow and cool runoff, preventing flooding and water temperature spikes that could harm the trout population.
Christiansen acknowledged that much of the property is unbuildable due to slopes, wetlands and its proximity to Amity Creek.
City Planner John Kelley noted that much of the property could be incorporated into a housing development nevertheless.
“Could some of that land potentially end up as a backyard area of future lots? Yes,” he said.
Christiansen said he intends to maintain public access to trails running through the area.
Sue Krochalk lives on Chisholm Street and regularly hikes the property. She described the area as home to a rich variety of wildlife.
“The creek cannot speak for itself," she said. "And our city, as well as other cities, have had a history of building right up on top of things, including rivers and streams. And once it’s done, it’s very hard to undo. So, we need to speak up for these green spaces and preserve them, not just for ourselves, not just for our peaceful neighborhood, but for the future of the city and the integrity of this creek, which is a trout stream.”
Planning Commissioner Gary Eckenberg said he’s not overly worried.
“I have a lot of confidence in the city’s ability to restrict and protect Amity Creek and that forested area, because there are so many regulations in place now that were not in place when some of the speakers said things had been destroyed (in the past),” he said.
But, Commissioner Andrea Wedul said: “I guess I’m struggling with the idea of rezoning this without understanding the environmental impacts of our actions and not being able to undo it. We literally can’t undo this mature forest. It has taken a hundred-plus years to get to this point.”
Katey Ferguson said she could support less intense development but not what is being proposed.
“I think they (these lands) are zoned RR-1 rural residential for a reason — to protect and maintain the habitats that Duluth is known for,” she said.
Christine Post, who lives at 114 Pleasant View Road, on the other side of Amity Creek, called the prospect of the proposed development “terrifying." As an avid fly fishing enthusiast, she expressed her fears of seeing Amity Creek further degraded by runoff and erosion.
“It makes me very nervous,” she said.
Post said she understands that Duluth needs more housing, but questioned whether a site on the banks of Amity Creek was an appropriate location for development. And given the considerable costs of the project, she suspects homes in Amity Bluffs will be “McMansions” that will price out most Duluthians.
Planning Commissioner Michael Schraepfer noted that there was still plenty of opportunity to address concerns regarding the prospective development.
“This is private property. Cities grow. And I think this isn’t the last stop. It’s the first stop,” he said. “So, if the street is too narrow, they’re going to need to make it bigger. If they need two accesses, they’re going to be required to provide that. If it’s unbuildable, it won’t get built. They’re going to have to protect the creek, because all those protections are already in place.”
Christiansen said he is looking to provide access to Amity Creek from both Vassar Street and an entrance off Woodland Avenue.
The Planning Commission voted 6-3 to recommend the rezoning, with commissioners Eckenberg, Schraepfer, Jason Crawford, Margie Nelson, Jason Hollinday and Sarah Wisdorf voting in the affirmative. The dissent included commissioners Wedul, Zandra Zwiebel and Eddie Ratnam.
The rezoning request will now head to the Duluth City Council, where it will require two readings before any action can be taken.
Well-aware of concerns about the proposed housing project, 1st District Duluth City Councilor Gary Anderson said he aims to organize a neighborhood meeting to hear people out and advise them on how they can make their voices heard.
He said that he wants to ensure that Amity Creek remains protected and that taxpayers won’t be asked to shoulder the costs of extending the city infrastructure needed to support the development.
“We want to make sure that if and when we do development that it’s sustainable on an economic basis and on an environmental basis,” he said.